It's nearly impossible to not admire Jesse Eisenberg's turn as the esteemed mime Marcel Marceau in writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz's Holocaust-set indie dramedy Resistance, a film arriving via all your usual streaming channels this coming weekend that brings to life a little known series of events that preceded Marceau's growth into one of entertainment history's most celebrated mimes.
The infinitely likable Eisenberg has made a career out of portraying infinitely likable characters, admittedly at times with hints of a darker side, and this mostly predictable yet still generally effective crowdpleaser is no exception. Eisenberg starts off as Marcel Mangel, later changing his stage name to Marceau, the son of a butcher in Strasbourg, France who dreams of being almost anything but a butcher. His father (Karl Markovics), of course, disapproves of his artistic pursuits but this doesn't dissuade Marcel from chasing his dreams and the greatness he not so humbly believes he deserves. Even at his most narcissistic, Eisenberg's Marcel is a rather likable chap, a self-serving artistic savant of sorts who's persuaded to get involved with the burgeoning French Resistance not by his activist brother, Sigmund (Edgar Ramirez), so much but a certain lovely lady, Emma (Clemence Poesy), whose similar activism seems reason enough for him to become interested in the plight of a truckload of Jewish orphans whose welfare has fallen into the hands of a group of Boy and Girl Scouts who look like not much more than older teenagers themselves.
It is these orphans, and eventually more of them, who are at the heart of Resistance, first introduced to us through the persona of Bella Ramsey's immensely moving Elsbeth, a young Jewish girl in Munich who watches as her parents are brutally murdered as part of the Kristallnacht pogrom, though the brutality in question is mercifully not graphic in nature as portrayed. What is graphic in nature, though, is Elsbeth's horrific trauma when we meet her again amidst the other Jewish orphans in a truck that has taken the lot of them to a safer place at a nearby castle-like setting that is strangely idyllic given the immense danger that surrounds it.
It is at this castle that Marcel will join his brother, Emma, and others in what is first simply a mission to protect the children before growing into something significantly more complex and universal in nature. While the potential for Life Is Beautiful to spring to life here is ever present, Jakubowicz wisely avoids turning Resistance into something overly sentimental, instead lulling us into being playfully seduced by Marcel's blossoming heart that companions his immense talent. Despite his ongoing sarcastic resistance to commit himself to the cause, Marcel is soon immersed in the lives of these children and concerned with their welfare. M.I. Litten-Menz's lensing magnificently captures the majesty of the Rhone Valley, while the story that unfolds is warm and light yet never overly maudlin or saccharine in nature.
Things change for everyone involved once the war explodes and it becomes abundantly clear that Germany is targeting all Jews, though Marcel initially seems oblivious to the genocidal nature of it all. They relocate to Lyon where the number of orphans increases and the presence of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer) takes the story from warm and light to edgy and menacing. Schweighofer portrays Barbie with a sort of sadistic glee, his penchant for piano playing while executing people in the drained pool of his luxury hotel headquarters only beginning to hint at the amount of joy he seems to take from torturing and killing anyone who gets in his way. For the most part, Schweighofer avoids caricature, though comparisons to Christoph Waltz seem inevitable and one would have to lean toward Waltz's ability to more subtly portray evil without an ounce of humanity in his eyes.
There's much to complain about with Resistance, from slipshod French accents to Eisenberg's functional but decidedly non-masterful performances in mime. Throughout Resistance's two-hour running time, the film vacillates between formulaic World War II movie tropes and Grand Canyon-sized tonal chasms that sometimes leave you wondering if you're supposed to laugh or cry or just plain feel indifferent. Once in a while, though, Resistance really, really clicks and mediocre mime work aside Eisenberg's performance here is never less than full-on engaging. Eisenberg is actually at his best playing just this type of character - a weaving together of physical vulnerability and emotional resolve that plays out both intelligently and with emotional honesty.
There are other tremendous performances, as well.
Clemence Poesy is a gem as Emma, while Vica Kerekes shines as Mila and Geza Rohrig gives one of the film's most emotionally satisfying turns as Georges. Tasked with portraying the oft-traumatized Elsbeth, Bella Ramsey excels with depth and honesty.
Angelo Milli's original score avoids the usual overwrought maudlin tones so often found in films such as Resistance, while Tomas Voth's production design gives the film a deceptive comfort that amplifies its more dramatic moments.
Despite its flaws, Resistance is a surprisingly engaging film from beginning to end. While predictable, Jakubowicz clearly understands the unspoken nuances of this story and fleshes out the emotional complexity within the relative simplicity. It's the kind of film where flaws are noticed, yet they often get lost within one's immersion in the film and its attractive storytelling. While Jakubowicz can never quite make Resistance feel as wondrously unique as is Resistance the story, as a filmmaker he still manages to make us understand the vitality of Marcel Marceau's story and the myriad of ways in which he risked his life both for himself and for others.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic